The Louisiana Legislature overwhelmingly supports the study of policing tactics. Lawmakers appear likely to set up a new task force to examine law enforcement practices over the next year — with the goal of recommending legislation to change state policing laws in 2021.
But White Republican lawmakers in the House haven’t wanted to link that study to George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white police officer in Minneapolis held him down and kept a knee on his neck for nearly 9 minutes last month.
Floyd has become a worldwide symbol for racial injustice and police brutality. His death has sparked large protests around the country and added new fuel to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
The Republicans who control the House have insisted on stripping references to Floyd’s death out of two pieces of legislation this month, including on Wednesday.
The House removed a reference to the “recent killing of George Floyd in Minnesota” from a resolution setting up the task force to study police misconduct. They also struck through a section that said “black men are three times more likely to be killed by police than white men.”
House Republican Caucus Chairman Blake Miguez, R-Erath, pushed for the language changes. Once they were made, the House unanimously approved the policing task force proposal. The resolution still needs to go through another vote in the Senate, but it is expected to be approved later this week.
While references to Floyd were removed, other allusions to the police’s reported mistreatment of minority communities remained in the legislation. It states the task force is supposed to come up with solutions for the “disparate treatment of people of color by law enforcement agencies” and mentions “racial bias recognition” as a kind of training for officers that might be recommended.
Sen. Cleo Fields, a Black Democrat from Baton Rouge, sponsored the legislation. He said he’s not inclined to fight the removal of the reference about Floyd — or Black men being killed more often by police officers than white men — as long as the task force gets approved. The policing study moving forward is more important than the language used in the resolution, he said.
While the task force has support, the discussion around forming it has, for weeks, been a source of tension in the Louisiana House. Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, called a previous resolution to set up the same task force the most “racist document” she had ever seen. She said she didn’t mind studying police practices, but also she was worried about law enforcement officers being “ambushed.”
On Wednesday, Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, said he was ready to support the task force. But he also told the House that cops get killed at a higher rate by criminals than Black people are killed by police. Bacala is a former chief deputy in the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office.
“Cops get shot. They get stabbed. They get beat to death. They get run over by drunks,” he said. “Let’s don’t limit what we’re going to speak about to some things people want to speak about.”
Bacala’s comments set off Rep. Ted James, a Black Democrat from Baton Rouge. James and Republican leadership had agreed to avoid a debate over police brutality and race on the floor of the House — as long as the Black Caucus members agreed to drop the language about Floyd, he said. But given Bacala’s comments, James wanted to talk about the issue.
“If we wanted to fully have a conversation, we shouldn’t have watered down the damn bill,” he said.
“We all know that police officers get murdered, but you know what happens to the people who murder police officers? If they survive, they get arrested. You know what happens when cops kill people that look like me? … They get a taxpayer-funded vacation,” James said.
“Blane Salamoni got a taxpayer-funded vacation for over a year,” James went on to say, referencing the officer who killed Alton Sterling.
Sterling was a Black man killed by the police outside a Baton Rouge convenience store in 2016. His death sparked widespread protests in Louisiana. Salamoni was neither arrested nor charged in Sterling’s death. The Baton Rouge Police Department eventually fired him, but he appealed his termination, and the Police Department reached a settlement agreement with him that ended his appeal without letting him return.
James also recalled incidents where he had been personally harassed by the police.
While he was standing outside his barber shop in Baton Rouge with four other Black men, he said, three police officers drove up and demanded to see their identification. James turned over his legislative badge — at which point the officers backed off.
“[One of the police officers] had the audacity to say ‘I thought you were one of them.’ I am one of them! Just because I have this pin doesn’t make me any different,” said James, pointing to the legislative pin that indicates he’s a House member. “Despite the title, as soon as I walk out of here, to many people, I’m just one of them.”
If Fields’ legislation passes, the new task force must start meeting by August 15. It would have to wrap up its work and report its findings to the Legislature by Feb. 1. Lawmakers would then use the task force’s recommendations to draft legislation for the 2021 session.
Members of the task force would include representatives from the Legislature, Attorney General, Fraternal Order of Police, state NAACP, Urban League of Louisiana, local law schools and sheriffs association.
On Wednesday, House Republicans also added members from the state district attorneys association and Crime Fighters of Louisiana– a victims advocacy organization — to the panel before approving the legislation.